March 23, 2006

Grade inflation-2: Possible benign causes for grade increases

Before jumping to the conclusion that a rise in average grades must imply inflation (see my previous posting on this topic), we should be aware of the dangers that exist when we are dealing with averages. For example, suppose we consider a hypothetical institution that has just two departments A and B. Historically, students taking courses in A have had average grades of 2.5 while those in B have had 3.0. Even if there is no change at all in the abilities or effort of the students and no change in what the faculty teach or the way that faculty assess and grade, so that the average grades in each department remain unchanged, it is still possible for the average grades of the institution to rise, simply because the fraction of students taking courses in B has become larger.

There is evidence that this shifting around in the courses taken by students is just what is happening. Those who are convinced that grade inflation exists and that it is evil, tend to interpret this phenomenon as game playing by students, that they are manipulating the system, choosing courses on the basis of how easy it is to get high grades rather than by interest or challenge.

For example, the ERIC report says "In Grade Inflation: A Crisis in College Education (2003), professor Valen E. Johnson concludes that disparities in grading affect the way students complete course evaluation forms and result in inequitable faculty evaluations. . . Students are currently able to manipulate their grade point averages through the judicious choice of their classes rather than through moderating their efforts. Academic standards have been diminished and this diminution can be halted, he argues, only if more principled student grading practices are adopted and if faculty evaluations become more closely linked to student achievement."

This looks bad and the author obviously wants to make it look bad, as can be seen from his choice of the word 'manipulate' to describe the students' actions and the way he implies that faculty are becoming more unprincipled in their grading practices. But there is no evidence for the evil motivations attributed to such students and faculty. In fact, one can look at the phenomenon in a different way. It is undoubtedly true that students now have many more choices than they did in the past. There are more majors and more electives. When you offer more choices, students are more likely to choose courses they are interested in and thus are more likely to do better in them.

Furthermore, even if students are choosing courses partly based on their expectation of the grade they will receive in it, we should not be too harsh in our judgments. After all, we have created a system in which grades seem to be the basis for almost everything: admission to colleges and graduate schools, honors, scholarships, and financial aid. As I said, grades have become the currency of higher education. Is it any wonder that students factor in grades when making their choices? If a student tries to balance courses they really want to take with those that know they can get a high grade in order to be able to maintain the GPA they need to retain their scholarships, why is this to be condemned? This seems to me to be a sensible strategy. After all, faculty do that kind of thing all the time. When faculty learn that the NIH or NSF is shifting its grants funding emphasis to some new research area, many will shift their research programs accordingly. We do not pour scorn on them for this, telling them that they should choose research topics purely based on their interests. Instead, we commend them for being forward thinking.

It certainly would be wonderful if students chose courses purely on the basis of their interest or usefulness or challenge and not on grade expectations, but to put students in the current grade-focused environment and expect them to ignore grades altogether when making their course selection is to be hypocritical and send mixed messages.

What about the idea that faculty grading standards have declined and that part of the reason is that they are giving easy grades in order to get good evaluations? This is a very popular piece of folklore on college campuses. But this question has also been studied and the data simply do not support it. It does seem to be true that students tend to get higher grades in the courses in the courses they rate higher. But to infer a causal relationship, that if a faculty member gives higher grades they will get better evaluations, is wrong.

People who have studied this find that if a student likes a course and a professor (and thus gives good evaluations), then they will tend to work harder at that course and do better (and thus get higher grades) thus bringing about the grades-evaluations correlation that we see. But what tends to determine how much a student likes a course and professor seems to depend on whether they student feels like she or he is actually leaning interesting and useful stuff. Students, like anybody else, don't like to feel they are wasting their time and money and do not enjoy being with a professor who does not care for them or respect them.

Remember that these studies report on general trends. It is quite likely that there exist individual professors who give high grades in a misguided attempt to bribe student to give good evaluations, and that there exist students willing to be so bribed. But such people are not the norm.

To be continued. . .

POST SCRIPT: And the winner is. . .

Meanwhile, there are Americans who have already have decided which country the US should invade next in the global war on terror, even if they haven't the faintest idea where that country is on the globe or why it should be invaded. Even Sri Lanka gets a shot at this particularly dubious honor.

Here's an idea for a reality show, along the lines of American Idol. It will be called Who's next?. The contestants will be the heads of states of each country and this time their goal will be to get voted off because the last remaining country gets bombed and invaded by the US. The judges could be Dick Cheney (to provide the sarcastic put-downs a la Simon Cowell. Sample: "You think we're going to waste our smart bombs on your dumb country?"), Donald Rumsfeld, and Condoleeza Rice.

Fox television, my contract is ready and I'm waiting for your call.


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Going back to school to teach high school physics, this topic gets covered a lot in our education classes. NCLB wants schools to show progess and looks only at grades for the results. What's to stop me from just giving everyone an A? Besides the obvious ethical quandary of course.

I love the idea for the show. And of course it would be Fox to do it first.

Posted by Barry on March 23, 2006 05:56 PM